NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Juwan Parker has been on the team for two Georgia-Kentucky games in the SEC tournament. He’ll be a part of a third on Friday. He knows what to expect from the so-called neutral court.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re in Bangladesh, Kentucky fans are going to show up,” Parker said. “Everywhere is Rupp, just about.”
The game could be in Sri Lanka or the country of Georgia, and this much would be evident: Georgia’s basketball team needs a signature win, the type that Friday would be, or else it will probably be in the NIT again.
That breakthrough victory, the kind that gets national notice, has painfully eluded Mark Fox’s team over the years, and Kentucky has been the main culprit. Twice this year Georgia had a two-point lead over Big Blue in the final minute. Twice Big Blue came back and won. Two years ago Georgia put a scare into the unbeaten Wildcats at Stegeman Coliseum, before falling. And on this very court at Bridgestone Arena last year, Georgia led Kentucky in the second half, behind a sterling effort from J.J. Frazier. Only to fall again.
“We’ve had a couple games in a row with Kentucky that have been great games, but we didn’t – we haven’t been over the bump,” Fox said after Thursday’s two-point win over Tennessee. “We have to do some difficult things.”
That includes not just overcoming what will be a very pro-Kentucky crowd on Friday. That shouldn’t scare the Bulldogs, who nearly pulled off the upset at Rupp Arena in February.
No, the bigger question for Georgia is just whether it’s good enough. The effort was good enough to beat ninth-seeded Tennessee on Thursday, but only barely, just as the Bulldogs barely beat Auburn, and barely beat LSU, two of the league’s worst teams, the week before.
“We’ll definitely have to play better tomorrow,” Georgia forward E’Torrion Wilridge said. “Cut down on all the mistakes, and just come ready to play.”
The hope for the Bulldogs is they got the bad showing out of their system, especially with Yante Maten working off the rust in his first game back from the knee he sprained against Kentucky.
“I’m pretty excited (to play the Wildcats again). No more injuries, though, for the next game,” Maten said, smiling. “It didn’t click or any pain at all during this game, so I’m just thanking God.”
The fact that Maten played do much (26 minutes) and looked as good as he did should be a jolt of confidence for the Bulldogs. So should the fact they nearly beat Kentucky twice, even without Maten the second time.
But it’s still Kentucky, it’s still the SEC tournament, and it’s still the same Georgia program that hasn’t been able to finish the deal against an elite opponent.
There’s one more chance this season to do that. If not, it might be back to the NIT.
Which for a team that harbored legitimate NCAA hopes, might as well be in Bangladesh.